Is there a way to film Gustave Flaubert's classic novel Madame Bovary without short-changing the book in the process? It's a good question - not just restricted to Flaubert's work, but that seems most vital to novels like this one, that don't translate easily to narrative work. Sophie Barthes otherwise admirably thoughtful adaptation doesn't answer it very well and it does short-change the book somehow, though there is certainly intelligence in it.
The script by the director and her producer Felipe Marino reimagines clearly the tale of the adulteress Emma Bovary (played by current go-to actress Mia Wasikowska) in 19th century rural Normandy for the modern age of austerity, focussing it on consumerism, status, credit while taking a few liberties with the plot. Ms. Barthes' Emma remains childless and has a fling with the dashing marquess d'Andervilliers instead of the rakish Rodolphe Boulanger (who remains absent throughout), but the most important aspect of this reading is she never truly becomes anything other than a young woman straight out of convent education, stifled by the world around her. The small provincial society of Yonville, ravishingly shot on French location by the great cinematographer Andrij Parekh, has strictly defined parameters - suggested ever so elegantly by the way the village residents look at Emma, always looking back distantly at her.
The doctor's wife, though, through no great fault of her own but rather of her own education, remains a wide-eyed dreamer let loose in a candy store of sensuality, all too enamoured of the shiny toys she becomes addicted to to fully understand the trap she has let herself fall into. It's a trap that hasn't necessarily been set on purpose for her only; most of what happens in this Bovary derives from the judgmental strictures of 19th century patriarchal society, a rigid system where status makes the rules more than talent or personality. Chafing against the greyness surrounding her, Emma blooms with the quivering anticipation of the moment she will find herself elevated above her surroundings - but, with her hands tied, she must instead fall down ignominious chutes as someone who mistook a bright lamp for the sun and must be punished for her impudence.
Ms. Barthes and Ms. Wasikowska are very good at contouring the elaborately spring-loaded traps Emma walks into; the actress is careful to not make Emma too much of a victim, though she is assuredly one as well, while making sure she is not a defenseless, powerless woman. Instead, she is painted as defiantly headstrong but utterly deluded, who in some way deserves what she has coming while begging the question - could it ever have been any other way? But Ms. Barthes is unable to make what surrounds Emma truly come to life. The moments where she gives herself away or receives her emotional comeuppance are handled with such restraint and care that they become inert, never truly scaling the heights of passion required to make Emma's fall all the more harrowing.
We're left with Rhys Ifans' suave, almost oily merchant Lheureux as the "forked-tongue serpent" that tantalizes Emma with credit for her lush tastes as the perfect (if obvious) metaphor of the cynicism of cheap credit, and with a handsome film that is no catastrophe but doesn't really make the most out the multitudes contained in its origin story.
USA, Germany, Belgium, United Kingdom. France, 2014
Cast Mia Wasikowska, Rhys Ifans, Ezra Miller, Logan Marshall Green, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Laura Carmichael, Olivier Gourmet, Paul Giamatti
Director Sophie Barthes; screenwriters Felipe Marino and Ms. Barthes from the novel by Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary; cinematographer Andrij Parekh (colour, widescreen); composers Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine; designer Benoît Barouh; costumes Valérie Ranchoux and Christian Gasc; editor Mikkel E. G. Nielsen; producers Joe Neurauter, Mr. Marino, Ms. Barthes and Jaime Mateus-Tique; production companies Occupant Entertainment, A Company Filmproduktion, Left Field Ventures and Scope Pictures in association with Radiant Films International, Prescience Film Finance, VP Finance, Altus Media, Aden Films, Aleph Motion Pictures, Gem Films and Steel Fish Pictures
screened June 16th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon, distributor press screening